Wednesday, May 18, 2011

weird trips: an exercise in catharsis, part 2: the Old Grey Lady

The feature on the strange and inexplicable road trips that I intended to carry this blog through the offseason fell off after the first try, and to be honest I really don't have much of an explanation. I'd like to blame the tornadoes, but that's not really accurate; the truth is, I wasn't sure where to go after Volume 1. So let's start at the beginning: My first trip to Legion Field, the night Freddie Kitchens did the improbable and Gene Stallings officially stepped down as head coach at Alabama.

(Note: Before we go any further, I remind you to visit the Red Cross' website and donate, if you haven't done so already. Alabama thanks you.)

The lead-up: The 1996 season was, on the whole a pretty frustrating yet successful affair for 'Bama fans. And really, that sentence describes most of the Gene Stallings tenure anyway: they won, but it always felt like they should be better. To wit: 'Bama opened the '96 season with seven unimpressive wins, then went to Neyland Stadium to play Peyton Manning and Tennessee. And we were winning the damn game, too ... but we couldn't cash in and grab a firm hold on the game, and ultimately the Vols tied the game, then took the lead in the fourth quarter. 'Bama drove down the field but failed to tie the game. The next two weeks, Alabama beat LSU in Death Valley (thanks to a breakout performance from freshman Shaun Alexander), then somehow lost to Mississippi State in Starkville, 17-16. I have utterly no memory of this game.
It's at this point that the story turns ugly: According to legend, coach Stallings and new athletic director Bob Bockrath got into a giant blowup over ... well, something after the game, and in the ensuing week, the possibility was raised that the coach would leave after the season.
Auburn, on the other hand, was suffering its second straight genuinely disappointing Terry Bowden season. The Tigers lost an early-season game to LSU (the famous "Fire Game), got crushed at Florida (the eventual national champs) and later lost a genuine heartbreaker to Georgia in overtime. Both teams were reeling coming to Legion Field that November.

How we got there: To be honest, I'm a little hazy. I'm fairly certain that, at some point early that morning, my dad came into my room and casually asked me if I was interested in going to the game. "Uh ... well, yeah." He informed that some friends of ours who are generous donators to the university had offered us their tickets for the game at Legion Field. And I needed to change into something that made me look like more than a bum. Which I was able to do in a shocking amount of time.
This was my first trip to Legion Field, the second time I'd seen an Auburn-Bama game in person (the first was the previous year, when I was selling programs at Auburn games).

The trip: More to the point, this was the specific moment when a young will heath's eyes were opened to the reality of gameday at Legion Field. Specifically, I remember driving in on Arkadelphia Road and being legitimately amazed at the scores of people from the neighborhoods out on the street, waving towels, offering to park cars in their yards ... for a fee. We ultimately paid $15 to park in someone's yard, with Dad telling me afterward, "They really can't legally charge you to park on the street. The street is public. You're paying them to make sure your still has its hubcaps when the game is over."

The game: Alabama jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, then spent the next 50 minutes or so giving it all back. Dameyune Craig played a great game against a great defense, and Auburn was able to hold 'Bama at bay, holding a 23-17 lead as the nervous crowd counted down the minutes. Honestly, my biggest memory of the game was the way Alabama fans pleaded with Freddie Kitchens, the oft-maligned, pudgy quarterback who always seemed like he was one or two plays away from being great. One guy repeatedly shouted he would buy Freddie a cheesburger for every touchdown. Which, of course, made it all the better when this happened.

When the game finally ended, the couple in front of us tossed their seat cushions — nice seat cushions, the kind you'd spend a good chunk of money on — into the air in celebration. Guess it wasn't that valuable after all.
One note on the final drive: Legend has it that coach Stallings told longtime assistant (and de facto defensive coordinator) Bill Oliver in 1995 that he intended to retire following the season. However, after the season, Stallings changed his mind and decided to stay on for another run at a title. This angered Oliver enough to make him available; Bowden hired him as Auburn's DC before the '96 season.

Coach Stallings: On the way back to the car, a guy came up to us on the street and said, "I heard coach Stallings is gonna retire." I scoffed. "They say that every year." Of course, when we got in the car, Stallings was in the midst of his retirement presser. "Dammit," said Dad.

The aftermath: Alabama went on to the SEC Championship Game the week after Auburn, playing reasonably well in a 45-30 loss to Florida (again, the eventual national champs). Stallings did indeed step down after defeating Michigan in a typically ugly Stallings affair at the Outback Bowl in Tampa. They hired Mike Dubose. And that's probably all we need to say about that. Auburn actually won the SEC West the following season under Bowden, then fired him in '98.
One other thing: We didn't know it at the time, but this was the penultimate "Iron Bowl" — four years later, in 2000, Alabama moved its home game to Tuscaloosa, meaning the game was gone from Birmingham forever (Auburn had moved their home game on campus in 1989). By the time I made it to Alabama as a freshman, games on Greymont were mostly a hassle: we were stuck in a contract that required us to play there a few times a year, usually terrible games against Middle Tennessee State and Louisiana Tech.
Glad I got to see it while I still could.

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